With the advent of player power, shorter contracts, and math whiz front offices, NBA free agent season seems to get crazier every summer. And this year may already be the craziest yet, thanks to Kevin Durant’s trade demand to the Brooklyn Nets just hours before trades officially commence at 6pm tonight, which seems likely to ignite the greatest NBA bidding war of all time.
Before the annual summer shopping spree begins, Gilbert Arenas—the retired three-time NBA All-Star turned podcaster who’s become one of the most provocative NBA observers around—shared a handful of free agency truths from a player’s perspective with GQ. Eat up.
1. The little things mean more than big bucks. Believe it or not, it’s not always about making the most money in free agency. An extra $30 million here or there doesn’t necessarily tip the scales when weighing offers.
“Players will look at $150 million and $180 million the same way,” says Arenas.
What’s the deciding factor? NBA superstars, believe it or not, happen to be human beings, albeit extremely athletic ones. Take care of ‘em and they’ll return the love.
“You have $20,000 to $30,000 of random shit that an owner can pay for to keep a player there,” says Arenas. An example: “If you’re willing to give Kawhi Leonard $200 million, why aren’t you willing to take care of his friends’ phone bills or pay to have them come visit a star player and take care of travel to home games once or twice a month?”
Strictly speaking, teams aren’t allowed to pay players more than the official value of a contract, but fringe benefits are a gray area. An owner would have to pay, Arenas estimates, at most $200,000 to cover a star player’s off-the-court needs. He’s talking about the annoying little things — like extra tickets to games and other random expenses a player detests dealing with. “That gesture stops a superstar from leaving,” says Arenas.
2. Personal slights push stars away. The NBA is pet-ty. Take away a man’s cookies and you just might take away your chances of re-signing him.
Don’t believe it? Arenas says NBA history could’ve been way different if one of the game’s greats had been allowed to continue enjoying his favorite indulgence on the team charter.
Without divulging the player’s name, Arenas relates an anecdote about how one team’s sudden decision to replace sugary snacks with healthier options doomed their chances of retaining the services of the living legend. The way Arenas tells it, an executive for one of the NBA’s major market teams told flight attendants to replace the junk food on the plane with more wholesome options. The change happened abruptly in the middle of the superstar’s walk year while he and his squad had one of the best records in the league. When the player found out he could no longer chow down on his favorite chocolate chip cookies 35,000 feet in the air, he was pissed. A few months later, the superstar took his talents elsewhere.
“He left because of fucking cookies,” says Arenas.
Guys are as good as gone for something as petty as an organization screwing with their personal parking space at the practice facility. Arenas says NBA players never forget a slight. Remember that argument between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green early in the 2018-19 season? When Green reportedly called Durant a “bitch” and told KD “we don’t need you”? That was the beginning of the end of the Durant and Golden State marriage. KD bolted for Brooklyn the following summer.
“If you make situations personal, he’s leaving,” says Arenas.
3. Players can be loyal to a fault. To their detriment, Arenas believes NBA stars have been brainwashed — he blames fans and the media — to think that chasing a title via free agency is a hollow pursuit. Can you blame them? LeBron and KD still get grief from Twitter trolls and talking heads for winning in Miami and Golden State.
“For us to be great, we have to win a championship where we were drafted or it doesn’t count,” says Arenas. “You automatically make us loyal by that notion so that’s why players will sit in cities while their careers are dying.”
According to Agent Zero, guys generally come to the realization that loyalty in the NBA is a bunch of BS after a decade in the league. By that point, they know it’s really a business. But today’s best example of what Arenas is talking about is Damian Lillard.
Forever devoted to his adopted home of Portland, Lillard’s a future Hall of Famer and one of the 75 best players in league history. He’s talked numerous times about wanting to end Portland’s 45 years and counting championship drought and how that would mean the world to him. But the Blazers haven’t shown they can put together a championship-caliber roster around Lillard. While the 31-year-old stud should be applauded for doing it his way, it could cost him a ring and the difference between retiring as a great player or a god.
4. Players are always recruiting each other. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the recruitment of free agents — at least amongst the players — isn’t exclusive to the offseason. Nor is it restricted to DMs, text messages or FaceTime. Arenas says it happens “every damn game.” Players can’t stop themselves from pitching each other championship dreams and planting a seed about what it would be like to team up together in a different city.
“You gotta remember, players play with each other during the summer,” he says. “They study each other. So players know who they will play well with. If you ask Damian Lillard how many players came up to him and said, ‘Oh, you want to come to us? We can make a trade for you.’ All the time.”
And when it comes to constructing a trade to acquire a star, Arenas believes the players, not general managers, should be the ones to make moves. Salary cap ramifications and restrictions be damned.
“Players’ trades are way better than general managers’ trades,” says Arenas. “Players pick the right pieces. We can see it because we watch how people play. The general managers look at paper.”
Speaking of trades, any rumors you read in the days leading up to the start of free agency, please consume them with a grain or salt. Or five.
“Ninety percent of it is real, but bullshit. It’s part of negotiating tactics,” says Agent Zero.
So when your favorite NBA insider tweets out a scoop, the intel often comes from the team or a player’s agent. And always in an effort to better position themselves when it’s time to talk money.
5. The one team no free agent wants to play for. Ask any enlightened Knicks fans who deserves most of the blame for the team’s two-decade malaise and they’ll probably finger kazoo-loving owner James Dolan.
It’s true that the Knicks have largely sucked this millennium for a litany of reasons under Dolan’s stewardship. All the horrible front office additions (like Phil Jackson), the head coaches who were hired to be fired (14 of ‘em since 2001), the poorly constructed rosters (pick a year, any year) and an epically awful track record in the draft (Jordan Hill, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and on and on and on) are among the main culprits.
But according to Arenas, New York basketball fans actually deserve the blame.Yes, the Bing Bong brigade who live and die for the Knicks despite a single playoff series win over the past 22 season need to look in the mirror, because Arenas has heard players so repulsed by the negative vibes from a Madison Square Garden crowd that they swear to never suit up for the Knicks.
“When we’re the road team and we come in and we see how you treat us versus how you treat your own team, oh my God, I would never want to be a Knicks player,” says Arenas. “Fuck that.”
“Think about all the talent and types of teams the Knicks have had and they can’t put it together because Knicks fans are unrealistic,” says Arenas. “You’re not going to put in boos and get out a championship, I can tell you that for sure.” He continues: “They are some unloyal-ass fans. They’re great fans of basketball. They appreciate basketball, not necessarily their team.”
It doesn’t help that MSG showers adulation on a visitor like Steph Curry as he starts to cook, gassing him up so he catches fire like it’s NBA Jam while simultaneously demoralizing the home team. One of the biggest reasons NBA players love balling at the Mecca — along with the building’s history and its dramatic lighting — is it’s easy to flip the New York crowd and crush the spirit of the Knicks.
“That was our game plan. Jump on the Knicks early to turn the crowd,” says Arenas. “Once the crowd turns on them, this game is over. They’ll never bounce back from it.”
You’ll never hear a Golden State crowd boo the Warriors, even when they’re down double digits. It’s nothing but love and positive vibes in San Francisco. Negativity is second nature to New Yorkers and considering there are a million ways to spend your time and money in the Big Apple, fans won’t hesitate to jeer the players on the court. Or off it. Sometimes those poor Knickerbockers can’t escape the toxicity while off-duty since New Yorkers do not give a damn.
“A player goes to the club and Knicks fans are drunk and tell him, ‘You should be in the gym after that performance you had tonight,’” says Arenas. “Now you have a player who can’t even be himself in public. Putting on that New York jersey becomes a bad experience.”